What’s on Your Nightstand, Juliet Walker?

History Professor Juliet E.K. Walker knows first-hand the power of a book to shape history.

Earlier this year, the site of New Philadelphia, Ill., a town founded in 1836 by her great-great grandfather Frank McWorter, was named a National Historic Landmark, based on research she published in “Free Frank: A Black Pioneer on the Antebellum Frontier” (1983, 1995).

In the book, Walker documented the historic significance of McWorter’s life and New Philadelphia, which is the first known town platted and officially registered by an African American before the Civil War.

“The search for the reality of a usable African American historic past, as well as assessments that provide insight on the contemporary black experience often propel my book selection,” Walker says.

“As an historian, a continuous search for understanding the slave experience from the perspective of the slave drives my interest in biographies, which often provide a more incisive analysis and greater insight than general historic assessments.”

Here’s what the scholar had to say about the books currently on her nightstand:

The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family” (W.W. Norton, 2008) by Annette Gordon-Reed

The distinguished history professor Annette Gordon-Reed’s book, “The Hemingses of Monticello” traces the origins of the Hemings, a slave family from 17th-century Virginia, to their sale after the death of their owner, the nation’s third president Thomas Jefferson. Gordon-Reed also describes the 38-year liaison between Jefferson and the slave Sally Hemings, and her seven children. In part, DNA tests corroborate paternity, previously established by the historical record.

An exciting read and a comprehensive brilliantly researched book that moves the enslaved to the forefront of their lives and experiences, as opposed to being relegated as appendages of history.

The Washingtons of Wessyngton Plantation: Stories of My Family’s Journey to Freedom” (Atria, 2009) by John Baker

Baker’s expansive and informative “The Washingtons of Wessyngton Plantation,” reviews the lives of the author’s enslaved ancestors and some 274 other African Americans who were also enslaved over time on the nation’s largest tobacco plantation. Located near Nashville, Tenn., the plantation was established by a distant relative of the first American President.

Unlike Alex Haley’s path-breaking “Roots,” based on his family’s oral history, Baker’s 30 years of research in the reconstruction of this community of slaves was based not only on oral history interviews from descendants of both the enslaved and the enslaver, but also on documents including private papers and public records. in addition to assessments from DNA tests results.

The Militant South, 1800-1861” (University of Illinois Press, 2002) by John Hope Franklin

While both Gordon-Reed and Baker’s books move us away from the general amorphous reconstruction of slave life, we must be reminded of the historical reality of the institution in John Hope Franklin’s “The Militant South,” in which he describes the extent to which the enslaved were oppressed in a section of the United States which he described as a “virtual armed camp.”

With American army bases located in the South given constitutional sanction to put down slave rebellions, in addition to state militias, county patrols and municipal police, as well as armed white citizens who could suppress slave intransigence with impunity, “The Militant South” underscores the extent to which there were not too many people of African descent who did not offer challenges to their enslavement.

Ida: A Sword Among Lions: Ida B. Wells and the Campaign Against Lynching” (Amistad, 2008) by Paula Giddings

The violence of African American oppression did not end with the Civil War as African American Professor Giddings reminds us in her highly acclaimed biography “Ida, a Sword Among Lions.”

Ida B. Wells is an iconic historic figure, whose life weaves in and out of black activism at the turn of the 20th century. One of America’s first woman investigative journalists, Giddings’ brilliant assessment provides another dimension of the diversity of historic responses of African American women in their search for African American freedom and equality.

The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama” (Doubleday, 2009) by Gwen Ifill

By the turn of the 21st century, African American women in journalism had moved into the media mainstream where their assessments now include broad issues in American life, including the recently published “The Breakthrough” by Gwen Ifill, a nationally known newspaper and broadcast journalist. In the book, Ifill’s focus is on a new generation of black political leaders.

While only a 19-page chapter focuses on President Barack Obama, 179 of the book’s 266 pages include information on the new president, as he exemplified various aspects of the new generation of post-Civil Rights era African-American politicians. Based primarily on interviews, the book’s contribution is its synthesis of this new generation and the strategies developed as they skillfully negotiate the nation’s new political arena.

Still, waiting to be read are “A Mercy” (2008), by Toni Morrison, a novel set in the 17th century on the experience of women of various races and class on a Maryland plantation, as well as James Patterson’s novel “Cross County” (2008), where the protagonist is a black psychologist and detective.

Walker is the founder and director of the Center for Black Business History at the university. Her other books include “The History of Black Business in America” and “Encyclopedia of African American Business History.” She currently is writing a book about Oprah Winfrey, forthcoming from Harvard Business School Press.

Symposium Celebrates Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged”

The Department of Philosophy will host the symposium “Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged: Celebrating the Best Within Us,” from 4 to 6:30 p.m., March 4. Presenters will offer perspectives on the Russian-born philosopher’s magnum opus, both as philosophy and literature.

Each session will include a question-and-answer period, and a reception with the speakers will be held immediately afterward. The event is free and open to the public.

Speakers and topics include:

4 p.m. “Ayn Rand: Evidence of a Life” by Jeff Britting, associate producer of the Academy Award nominated-documentary film, “Ayn Rand: Evidence of a Life;”

4:15 p.m. “The Benevolent Universe Premise in Atlas Shrugged” by Allan Gotthelf, visiting professor of history and philosophy of science at the University of Pittsburgh;

5 p.m. “John Galt as the Hero of Atlas Shrugged: Leader and Lover” by Shoshana Milgram, associate professor of English at Virginia Tech;

5:45 p.m. “The Appeal of Atlas Shrugged to Young People” by Onkar Ghate, senior fellow at the Ayn Rand Institute.

A joint survey conducted by the Library of Congress and the Book of the Month Club found that “Atlas Shrugged” is the second most influential book for Americans today, after the Bible.

The symposium is sponsored by the BB&T Chair for the Study of Objectivism and Anthem Fellowship for the Study of Objectivism, both held by Professor Tara Smith. Smith is the author of “Ayn Rand’s Normative Ethics: The Virtuous Egoist” (Cambridge University Press, 2006).

Learn more about the symposium.

Mayor Picks “The Septembers of Shiraz” for Book Club

Mayor Will Wynn has chosen “The Septembers of Shiraz” (HarperCollins, 2008) by Dalia Sofer for the 2009 Mayor’s Book Club. The club is cosponsored by the Austin Public Library and the Humanities Institute at The University of Texas at Austin.

Sofer’s debut novel is based on her childhood in Iran during the revolution and flight from the country after her father was imprisoned. It was named a New York Times Notable Book of the Year for 2008.

The Humanities Institute invites all of Austin and the campus community to read the book in February and March, and then participate in special events in April, culminating in a reading with the author at 6:30 p.m., April 24 at City Hall.

Stay tuned for more details about book discussions and other special book club events scheduled for April.

Amazing Rare Maps in the Benson Collection

In 1577, Spain’s King Phillip II ordered a comprehensive survey of the New World. Questionnaires sent to Spain’s territories in the Americas requested information about population, languages, terrain and vegetation.

Of the more than 200 hand-drawn responses, called the relaciones geográficas, one-fifth reside in the Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection at The University of Texas at Austin. The relaciones geográficas are just a few of the many priceless artifacts acquired by the library since its establishment in 1926.

Today, the Benson Collection is the largest university library of Latin American materials in North America, attracting scholars and visitors from around the world and providing essential support to the research and teaching of the Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies.

The collection’s curators acquire and provide access to materials on Mexico, Central and South America, the Caribbean and the Hispanic presence in the United States.

The delicate condition of the centuries-old maps means they are not publicly displayed, but the helpful staff of the Benson library will show them to interested visitors. Just head to the rare books section and ask to see the relaciones geográficas.

Several images of the maps are also available online.

Burnt Orange Britannia

British studies scholars from around the globe will converge on campus Feb. 20-21 for the 2009 British Scholar Annual Conference to be held at the Harry Ransom Center.

Wm. Roger Louis, professor of history and director of the university’s British Studies Program was instrumental in bringing the conference to the university.

A renowned scholar of British history, Louis is the author or editor or more than 30 books on the history, literature and politics of the British Empire. The latest is “Burnt Orange Britannia” (I.B. Tauris, 2006), a collection of autobiographical essays by top historians and scholars of the British experience.

Several UT professors will present papers at the conference, and Linda Colley, professor of history at Princeton University, will give the keynote address. The New York Times named her book “The Ordeal of Elizabeth Marsh” (Random House) one of the “Ten Best Books of the Year” for 2007.

Learn more about the conference and download a complete schedule of events.

Irish Studies Reading List

Are you one of more than 35 million Americans who can claim Irish ancestry? If so, two recent books about Ireland’s robust literary tradition might catch your eye. Both books are by alumni of the university’s Department of English.

Texas Ex Karen Steele (Ph.D. English, ’96) is the author of “Women, Press and Politics During the Irish Revival” (Syracuse University Press, 2007), a study of female voices who helped launch the 1916 Easter Rising, which ultimately led to Ireland’s independence from Great Britain. Steele is now an associate professor of English and director of the Women’s Studies Program at Texas Christian University.

Ellen Crowell (Ph.D. English, ’04) is the author of “The Dandy in Irish and American Southern Fiction” (Edinburgh University Press, 2007), an interdisciplinary study of two literary traditions that have remarkable similarities. Crowell is now an assistant professor of English at Saint Louis University.

Elizabeth Butler Cullingford, chair of the English department and a scholar of Irish literature, directed both Steele and Crowell during their doctoral studies at the university.

For further reading from the field of Irish studies, check out Cullingford’s books which include “Ireland’s Others: Gender and Ethnicity in Irish Literature and Popular Culture,” “Gender and History in Yeats’s Love Poetry” and “Yeats, Ireland and Fascism.”

Review: “Diplomats in Blue” by William Braisted

What does a navy do when it is not at war? From 1922 to 1933, the U.S. Navy kept the peace in the volatile western Pacific.

In “Diplomats in Blue: U.S. Naval Officers in China, 1922-1933” (University Press of Florida, 2009), Professor Emeritus of History William R. Braisted depicts a bygone world in which admirals played almost as important a role as ambassadors in representing American interests abroad.

During peace-time, high-ranking naval officers worked first to protect American citizens and American business interests. And several of them labored, sometimes in conflict with State Department officials, to foster a stronger, more unified China that might be a better ally of the United States.

Historian William R. Braisted

Historian William R. Braisted

Braisted will turn 91 in March. He previously published two well-received accounts of the U.S. Navy in the Pacific covering the years 1897 to 1922. In “Diplomats in Blue” Braisted diverges from these books in that he was actually present for parts of the story. As he relates in a sprightly preface, the navy was a family affair back then.

Like many navy wives, Braisted’s mother followed her husband’s ship—to the Philippines, then to Hong Kong, Shanghai and Chefoo, China—with four to six-year-old Braisted in tow. Ten years later, when the family returned to China and spent two years in Shanghai, Braisted attended the Shanghai American School and confirmed his fascination with all things Chinese. He would later introduce the study of Chinese and Japanese history into the UT curriculum.

“Diplomats in Blue” will prove useful to students of U.S. diplomacy and naval history, but also to those interested in the development of modern China. The book is well illustrated with clear and well-placed photographs and excellent maps, and Braisted has a straightforward and engaging narrative style that doesn’t diminish a wealth of detail and attention to nuance.

Reviewed by Marian J. Barber, doctoral candidate in the Department of History at The University of Texas at Austin.

A Philosopher’s Treatise on Love

“My thesis is, in a nutshell, that love is in fact even more profound and basic to our being than most of our talk about it would suggest,” writes the late philosopher Robert Solomon in the preface to “About Love: Reinventing Romance For Our Times” (1988, 1994, 2006).

Solomon, the former Quincy Lee Centennial Professor of Business and Philosophy and a distinguished teaching professor, passed away in 2007 at the age of 64. But his ideas about life, love, relationships and sex, live on in his books.

“About Love” covers a comprehensive array of questions about the nature of love, including the idealization of love, the joys of sex, love at first sight, the meaning of fidelity and how to make love last.

According to Solomon, love remains such a mystery in part because those who have tried to explain love over the centuries have either sung its praises or reduced it from a grand emotion to a domestic science. He calls these theorists the “foggers” and the “facilitators,” and both have contributed to misunderstandings about love, according to the scholar.

“The Foggers tell us how wonderful love is but they don’t tell us what it is,” Solomon writes. “They often tell us how rare true love is, but they rarely tell us the truth about love—that love is in fact quite ordinary, less than cosmic, not the answer to all of life’s problems and sometimes calmitous.”

On the other hand, the facilitators have oversimplified the nature of love, Solomon argues.

“The Faciliators, by contrast, have turned love into a set of skills—negotiating, expressing your feelings…sharing the housework…” Solomon writes. “While the Foggers make love more mysterious, the Facilitators make thinking about love facile.”

The philosopher provides an antidote to both of these schools of thought in “About Love” by asking the age-old question “What is love?” and offering an answer that goes beyond mere physical attraction or everyday commodity.

Solomon favors a theory of love that dates back to Plato, which imagines love as a union of two souls. How do you define love?

Literary Marriages from Hell

“Why does some of the best poetry emerge from the charred ruins of a tortured relationship?” asks Betsy Berry, lecturer in the Department of English.

That’s the question students tackle in her popular course, “Literary Marriages from Hell,” which examines the lives of doomed literary couples and the masterpieces of literature they produced.

Students read books such as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “Tender is the Night,” which immortalized his relationship with his wife Zelda (who suffered from schizophrenia), and analyze poems such as “Daddy” by Sylvia Plath, which portrayed her troubled relationships with both her father and British poet laureate Ted Hughes.

“Plath and Hughes are the students’ perennial favorite couple to study,” Berry says. “The volume of work that sprang from their union is simply amazing.”

Along with engaging in textual criticism, the class screens films such as “Sylvia,” the 2003 biopic of Plath’s life starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Daniel Craig.

“In studying the relationships that informed the authors’ creativity, students gain a deeper reading of some of the great literature of the 20th century,” Berry says. “However, it’s important to note the works stand on their own, regardless of the context of their creation.”

Ready to dive into some messy relationships, but great literature? Check out the required reading list from the course syllabus:

• “The Waste Land and Other Poems” by T.S. Eliot;
• “Tender is the Night” by F. Scott Fitzgerald;
• “Birthday Letters” by Ted Hughes;
• “The Bell Jar” by Sylvia Plath;
• “Ariel” by Sylvia Plath.

An earlier version of this story first appeared in the Winter 2008-09 issue of Life & Letters, the College of Liberal Arts alumni magazine.

Is Narcissism Destroying Your Marriage?

In Greek mythology, Narcissus’ obsession with his reflection in a pool of water ultimately led to his death. For thousands of years, the cautionary tale has served as rich fodder for artists and philosophers, and even became the basis for Freud’s psychoanalytic theory of narcissism.

UT alumna Lisa Leit (Ph.D. Human Ecology, ‘08) further explores the psychological concept in “Conversational Narcissism in Marriage “ (VDM Verlag, 2008), which examines how narcissistic attention-seeking behavior in communication affects marital stability.

Central features of narcissism include a need for admiration and a lack of empathy, which may have damaging consequences for a relationship. Drawing upon social exchange theory, Leit and co-authors Deborah Jacobvitz and Nancy Hazen-Swann, found that conversational narcissism chararacterizes 78 percent of marriages and may ultimately lead to divorce.

Leit is a staff member of the Department of Rhetoric & Writing where she serves as a program coordinator for the Undergraduate Writing Center. She also has a private practice as a mediator, specializing in family dispute resolution. Learn more about her work at www.drlisaleit.com.

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Stay tuned for a series of ShelfLife posts about love, relationships and sex coming up this this week. We’ll write about Psychology Professor David Buss’ “Dangerous Passion,” Journalism Professor Robert Jensen’s thoughts on pornography, Betsy Berry’s popular English course “Literary Marriages from Hell” and philosopher Robert Solomon’s reinvention of romance.